We hold each other’s shoulders and jostle as we pose for a photo. Puja smiles, another girl who’s name I don’t know crouches in the front - it was her idea to take a photo. I feel this burst of happiness to be in solidarity with the girls even if for a brief moment. We are participating in something together. We are the same. We are girls.
I think the boy who is the local health worker is wearing pants that are two sizes too small. I’m interested to know where he learned such amazing English and what his master’s is in. Puja subtly attempts to sell him sex. She waves her hips and playfully pulls at his shirt sleeve. I can see it out of the corner of my eye. He swats her away like a fly, but I can see the small grin on his face; the look all boy’s have when anticipating the feeling of a woman’s body.
Poonam sits like a queen perched on a high bed in a room covered in Diwali decorations. Red colored lights, and blue paper, hundreds of shiny flowers plastered on the walls. Her face is white, her lips red, her saree gracefully draped highlighting a black sequin border. She is fat. Her round bare feet peak out of the bottom of her saree. She watches Bollywood all day, everyday when she is not selling sex.
I leave the dark corridor and enter back onto the street. Puja follows and puts her arm around me and we sway back and forth together laughing, the way that girls do.
Each of the sex workers in the area have madams and they live together in groups of 3-25. They play with each other’s hair, and hide behind each other when they’re shy. Looking at them reminded me of how I used to be with my girlfriends during gym class. In a constant state of communion. Remember? Shuffling up next to your best friend on the gym floor so that your knees touched, as if to say, “I’m here for you. We’re in this together.”
I’m sitting in Poonam’s room to design a mobile savings tool for women who transact in large amounts of cash and have no formal access to a bank. They’re there to give me a sharp reminder that I’m a girl and my responsibility is to stand up for my fellow girls. Speak loud and often and with intention. Our bond as women is real - I experienced it so viscerally in the brothels. It’s in our giggles, the way we whisper, and in the power we hold. With a single glance we can make the world fall in love with us.
If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.
Elif Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love